Party Like It’s 1995?

17 Sep

The extensive news coverage of tomorrow’s Scottish referendum brings back vivid memories of Quebec’s 1995 referendum. What’s so compelling about this one – like ours – is that the results are too close to predict. It’s a true cliffhanger in today’s world of instant polls, social media, and too many commentators pushing themselves on to too many platforms.

Also then, 19 years ago, the polls were not decisive, though on the “No” side we were preparing for defeat. I was 16 and not eligible to vote. During the turbulent weeks leading up to the referendum though, I felt I was living history, that my world and the world would change dramatically, whatever the results of that fateful vote.


A campaign poster for the “No” side, 1995.

My community, the Anglophone Jewish community of Montreal, had slowly waned for two decades, since the nationalist movement in Quebec strengthened and the provincial government instituted language laws aimed at making French the dominant language and relegating English to the sidelines. Without a doubt, virtually all Montreal Jews voted no.

Many of my friends’ families planned to leave should the “Oui” campaign win. I kept a count of who would be left in Montreal the day after. I was one of the few who would. At the time, Anglophones feared English would vanish and that we would lose whatever cultural rights we had fought to retain. Opportunities for the children would vanish as French would become the principal language. A new, independent economy would falter at best and plummet at worst, resulting in fewer jobs. Already then, the head offices of large international and national companies had abandoned Montreal for Toronto or elsewhere.

Both my parents worked in family businesses, and my father’s was dependent on Montreal’s port for success. He would not lose customers if Quebec would separate, he told us.

On the eve of that October election, I was scared. I was also exhilarated at witnessing a political awakening in my midst for the first time. Normally, Canada is uneventful politically; you can ignore politics for most of your life with little consequence. But in the fall of 1995, no one was indifferent. People hung signs and stickers. Almost everyone I knew went to the enormous demonstration against separation, along with 100,000 others. a day that will be remembered in Canada’s – and Quebec’s – history as an apex of political engagement and national sentiment.

Despite the efforts and passion both sides put in, no one knew a few thousand votes would determine our fate.

If the “Yes” side had won, perhaps I would have enrolled to a university out-of-province instead of to McGill. I would have met different people. Perhaps my parents would have emigrated eventually. There would be fewer Jews and Anglophones in Quebec for sure. That’s not to mention the potential pitfalls and successes that may have come with secession, but that’s all theoretical. Personally, things may have changed in the short-term but in the long-term, I’m quite sure I wouldn’t live there anymore, regardless of the referendum’s outcome.

At the same time even without separation, I see that much has changed in Quebec in 19 years. Montreal is more French than bilingual, and many of my former classmates, friends and peers have emigrated to Anglophone cities.  A Quebecois friend, who 15 years ago was a staunch separatist, told me recently that there’s no need for independence anymore; Quebec has achieved what it had wanted all along: to be a distinct society.

As we await the results of Scotland’s historic vote tomorrow, I wonder what an independent Quebec would have looked like in 2014.





2 Responses to “Party Like It’s 1995?”

  1. Susan Kolodny September 18, 2014 at 5:46 pm #

    I don’t wonder at all what an independent Quebec would have looked like. I am happy it didn’t happen and angry that one of the best cities has now turned into a village. Not to mention that so many of the best and brightest have left Montreal to make their homes where not only are the jobs more plentiful but so are the young people who will help to support those economies. Imagine if we had all the people who left still here paying taxes, eating out in restaurants and shopping for clothes, furniture and everything else!

  2. Marilyn Takefman September 19, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

    memories. Thanks.

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